Bears – A Fascination & A Fear

Bears intrigue me.

{taken at Anan Bear Observatory in Southeast Alaska}

My affinity for bears has been growing since my first encounters with black bears in the mountains west of Pikes Peak as an 11-year-old camper at Sanborn.  There was a dump for camp trash, and a frequent evening activity with your cabinside was to hop in a camp van, drive the few miles down the road to the dump at dusk and hope you might spot some bears scavenging through the trash.  Sometimes it was a mother with three cubs, sometimes just 1 or 2 bears…but I was hooked.  Bears were different, there seemed to be qualities that I just couldn’t nail down that made them stand out from the other wildlife I encountered (elk, coyotes, deer, beavers, and even cougars).  I probably wasted at least 2-3 rolls of 110 mm film on blurry bears and trash using this camera.

(via)

In college, I took a class called ‘Writing from Wild Sense of Place’ and we spent a good portion of the class backpacking in the rocky mountains.  When not on the trail, we were writing quite a bit and reading Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass and what became my favorite ‘The Grizzly Years’ by Doug Peacock.  Up until that point, writing about nature had been quiet and mostly historical; I always felt detached from the natural world that was being written about, as if it had changed in the space of time between when it was written and when I read it.  The Grizzly Years changed that for me.  It was palpable and relate-able.  It was about humanity and nature, war and solace, feeling out-of-place and finding connections all at the same time.

In 2004, I was offered a chance to work in Alaska as a guide for an at-risk youth program leading 46 day expeditions in the inside passage which included ocean canoeing, backpacking, glacier travel and canoeing the Stikine river.  It was an opportunity I could not turn down.  However, it was not without risk.  The course areas were remote, the students were at-risk, the environment was tough and the brown and black bear populations were high.

{Taken at Anan Bear Observatory}

 And then it happened, a student on course was bitten by a brown bear.  He survived the attack and was flown out by helicopter, with no lasting damage, but I was brought in to relieve the staff who were there when it happened.  I spent 5 days with that group, helping to process what had happened and ease them back into the expedition.  All seemed to be going well until the last evening I was to be with the group.

{dorsal fin of a humpback whale in the distance, Etolin Island on the left)

We were camped on a horseshoe-shaped beach on Etolin Island (the plan was to circumnavigate the island by canoe) in mid-April.  Etolin Island is unique in that it is home to elk.  Eight elk were transplanted in 1986 for the purposes of sport game hunting, have now  flourished and also provided a previously non-existent food source for coastal brown bears in the region.  Earlier in the day we had seen humpback whales as we rounded the southern tip of the island and had also spotted a wolf on an outcrop of rock.  We had finished dinner and were sitting around a campfire going through our evening routine while enjoying the waning evening light and watching the tide retreat.  The group consisted of 16 and 17-year-old boys who were apt to mess with each other; so proclamations of ‘there’s a bear over there’ had been common since the attack.  However, when one boy said it as we discussed the next day’s schedule…you could tell by the look on his face that he was not joking around, and in fact there was a very large brown bear who had walked out of the forest toward waterline and was beginning to dig for clams.  The three other guides and myself stood up and readied our bear spray, attempted to keep the group calm and got out the flare gun and the air horns.  The bear seemed not to notice us at first and continued searching for foods in the dusky light, we hollered a bit at the bear to get its attention and see if it would run back into the woods – nope, nothing.  Our head guide shot the flare gun towards the bear and it startled a bit and did retreat to the forest, however, it headed straight towards the line of tarps where each of the boys would sleep that evening, just inside the treeline.

The fear that washed over me, when I glanced across the receding water and saw a very large brown bear no more than 150-200 yards away…was primal, compelling and almost overwhelming.  My fight or flight response had certainly kicked in, and just like the boys in the group…my gut was telling me it was not willing to fight.  Adrenaline pumped through my veins, my legs became weak, I shivered vaguely and my voice wavered – of course all of this happening as I tried to retain some level of confidence and an inkling of respect from the teens.  Did I not mention that I was the only female on the trip?

What hit me hardest was the lack of control I had and the reality of how small and minuscule we are in the natural world.

Immediately and very seriously, the group began stating that they refused to sleep in their tarps or even go anywhere close to where they had stashed their dry bags. We discussed our options and decided that due to the prior events, the prudent thing to do would be to pack up all of our gear and paddle just across a channel to a small island offshore.  This required going into the very dark edge of the forest and taking down each student’s tarp (already set up), packing their things into their dry bag, tossing it onto the beach and getting our 7 canoes completely packed and ready to paddle.

But from a dark place of fear and anxiety and minds running wild with things that go bump in the night, are covered in fur and have very long claws…came the most peaceful paddle I’ve ever experienced.  The group operated as a well-oiled machine and by the time the last dry bag was thrown out from the edge of the woods, the boats were packed, spray skirts were tied, paddles were in hand and we were ready to launch.  The icing on the proverbial cake of the evening was the bio-luminescence visible with every paddle stroke.  The moon was out, the group was tired, the water was calm and we had avoided the known and real danger of a brown bear in our campsite.  I don’t think we paddled for more than an hour, but that paddle seemed to swallow the night.  We arrived well past midnight on another pebbly beach, anchored the canoes on high ground, grabbed our sleeping bags and tarps and slept side-by-side like a tray full of burritos.  (Please believe that I was not so naive to think that our new island was lacking in bears…only that it was not the place we had come from.)

Grizzly bears have been all over the news this last year, especially last summer with two bear-caused fatalities in Yellowstone National Park.  The most recent issue of Outside magazine also contains an article reviewing the events of last summer involving grizzly bears in the lower 48.  Slate.com recently published an article by Jessica Grose, detailing the investigation into the fatalities that took place in July and August of 2011.  I highly recommend reading the entire article as it details both attacks and goes into detail regarding the investigation that followed.  Although there was no conclusive evidence indicating that both attacks were committed by the same bear, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team found that the Wapiti Sow who attacked the hikers in July did feast on the hiker who was killed in August.  An easy assumption to make is that it was in fact the same bear who killed both men.  Regardless, she was trapped and euthanized and her cubs will spend their life in captivity.

We fished throughout Yellowstone the second week of September and did not see any bears.  This is fine with me.  I think my attraction shifted into fear after living and working in Alaska.  Regardless of how many bears I saw, I knew there were many more who saw me.

{taken on the western slope of Mt. Edziza, British Columbia}

I’ve come across very fresh tracks, seen steaming piles of berry filled scat, and heard plenty of noises to know that I’ve been closer than I would like to think to brown bears.  I’ve had hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I’ve had gut feelings that I should leave the area…and I have never been attacked or even charged.  The fear I feel is guttural,  it is primal and it is not something I can control.  I carry bear spray and wear a bear bell in an effort to make plenty of noise…but this does not negate the fear and the anticipation of what is possible.

This is hugely frustrating to my husband – my frequent hiking and fishing companion as he interprets my caution  and fear as unreasonable.  To his credit, he has done everything he can to make me feel more confident in the backcountry.  We both carry bear spray on our hip, are conscious about making noise and are well aware of our surroundings. And although he has grumbled about doing it, he has succumbed to my intuition when I have suggested that I think we should head to a different creek because I heard a noise, or it feels ‘bear-ish’.  He has even suggested that I carry a firearm when we fish in certain locations.  I am also very aware that part of the attraction to fishing and hiking in the backcountry is the solitude that it affords and being humbled by the largess of it all.  I, apparently want it all.  The wilderness, the quiet, the chance interactions and sightings of life and a world like it was 100 years ago…but I also want the guarantee of safety, and a mind clear of sneaking feelings of being watched.  And just as the saying goes…one can’t have its cake and eat it too.

The bottom line is that this will not keep me from doing things I love in remote places.  All that I have read and all that I have learned won’t stop me from paying attention to gut feelings and intuition, but hopefully it will have made me more prepared to manage the (unreasonable) emotions and handle any encounter (close or at a distance) that I may (be lucky enough to) have.

As “wilderness” continues to find a way into the urban world…as evidenced here and here, the basis of all thoughts, opinions and emotions surrounding bears and wild animals is a deep love and respect for them.  We do not live in a Disneyland or a zoo with fences and glass, nor should we.  I firmly believe that access to wild places is important, but I would hope to not put our access as humans above the survival of others.

Get out there, appreciate the wilds of our earth before they are gone, be safe, knowledgeable, prepared and, of course, humble!

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